“Travel is a means of achieving another life. Not the life you had been hoping for, but on the contrary, such a life as you cannot foresee when you set out.” – Philippe Diolé, The Most Beautiful Desert of All
(hat tip to Heather for the quote)
I was going to tell you of what I saw last Friday morning. It was a cool morning of 63 degrees. The sun was coming up behind me and the cottage as I sat in a chair by the front door. It was 7am. I held my breviary in my lap and had begun to pray Lauds quietly when I heard someone walking down the gravel road in front of the cottage. After a few seconds more of gravel crunching beneath feet I looked up. Only it wasn’t feet shifting the gravel and rocks. It was the eight hooves of two bucks, strolling slowly right to left before me. I swallowed the psalm I had been praying, let the book settle into my lap, and watched the deer stroll up the road.
Friday morning was the last day of our family vacation. We spent five days in the Black Hills and surrounding area of western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming.
Today I was going to tell you about the trip and share a few of the more than 500 photos taken.
I was going to tell of the white-knuckle monster thunderstorm I drove through on the first night to get to Sioux Falls, South Dakota where we’d spend the night before heading west on I-90.
I was going to mention that the drive west on I-90 across South Dakota has not changed much since the days of my childhood 35 years ago when my dad would load us into the station wagon and make the same trip every August before school started. There are still more billboards and tourist signs per mile than anywhere I’ve been.
I was going to talk about the stark beauty that is the Badlands. One hour west of Rapid City and the gateway to the Black Hills lie the lands the Lakota called “Makhóšiča“, literally bad land. I have always found it to be one of the most beautiful locations on the open prairies, and vividly remember walking along it’s paths as a boy of eight. On Monday I walked these same paths with my wife and children, and silently willed that memories of their own were forming and sticking somewhere inside the recesses of their minds.
I was to write about the rest of our week, each a separate day and chapter that begin to blend together as the week fades into the mists of time. Tuesday it was a drive through the central mountains, down quiet roads to an abandoned gold mine and small waterfall, before driving to Hill City to visit a railroad museum before lunch at The Alpine Inn. There are quaint stories about the German matriarch who owned the inn, but I won’t go into them now. After lunch we visited a large, pristine lake, and watched hawks fly high in the noonday sun above while the two youngest children skipped rocks.
It was to be the first day of spotting deer on either side of the road, hiding in the trees or grazing in the many meadows. My daughter, who had watched Bambi on the long drive west, was in heaven.
Then it was on to Mount Rushmore, and viewing what my daughter constantly refers to as “the four heads” (or “the foreheads”). There are paths and trails that didn’t exist the last time I was there in 1978, and I was so close beneath them this time that I have photos that literally peek up the nostrils of George Washington.
I was going to tell you of the play we attended at the Black Hills Playhouse in Custer State Park. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was an excellent production, full of wit, and enjoyed by all five of us from our seats in the front row of the stage right balcony. A thunderstorm raged outside and a wayward bat flew right at us from the stage in the beginning of Act II, all of which added to the fun. That night my young daughter awoke to nightmares of a fire-breathing rabbit she dreamily dubbed “the dragon bunny” the next morning (and she’s never watched this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Therefore I urge caution when crossing the moor “in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted.”
After a day of dealing with her impatient husband and understandably growing irritated as she attempted to navigate me through the wooded hills and winding roads, I read a reminder during Vespers that I needed to “Rejoice in hope, be patient under trial, persevere in prayer.” Message received, Lord, especially the part about patience under trial.
There were hairpin turns, “pigtail” bridges, and narrow roads high in elevation with no shoulders or guard rails to keep you from tumbling hundreds of feet should you fail to navigate a turn. We traveled more such roads on Wednesday as we drove through Keystone to the Crazy Horse monument (still in progress) and saw a dynamite blast clear more tonnage from the massive monument. While it seems this project is going on forever compared to the fourteen years it took to carve “the four heads”, it must be pointed out that those four figures would occupy the space on the side of the face of Chief Crazy Horse. Perspective is everything, no?
With my stomach in my throat I steered the family van and my loved ones along the scenic Needles Highway, climbing high above a mile in elevation at 5 to 10 miles per hour while not daring to look out my side window for fear of vertigo. While driving the Wildlife Loop through the park we saw more deer, burros and what my kids had been wanting desperately to see: buffalo. And did we see buffalo! Twice we were met by cars and motorcycles stopped along the two-lane blacktop as buffalo crossed from one side to the next. I have a picture of one massive beast crossing directly in front of my windshield. At the park gift shop my daughter begged to receive a stuffed buffalo which she immediately named “Buffy” and is sleeping with at this moment. I took a picture holding Buffy and wearing a massive buffalo had on my head (think Fred Flintstone’s water buffalo hat from his lodge meetings). I’m saving it for later use when my children need to be reminded how their parents exist to embarrass them.
As if they need to be reminded.
We paused along the Wildlife Loop to drive the narrow gravel road that wound itself around a peak that took us over 6,300 feet above sea level. I’m grateful for not meeting any vehicles driving up as it was a continuous turn to the left and I was hugging the middle and left lanes. To go too far to the right was to send us over an embankment hundreds and eventually thousands of feet in the air. I snapped a photo for Facebook that I’d meant to post as what might have been my “final view” in case the trip down met with disaster but didn’t as I thought it a bit dark humored.
We made it safely down the peak and drove to Rapid City for the Vigil Mass for the Feast of the Assumption at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. This may strike you odd that on vacation we would do such a thing. But as Fletcher Doyle wrote in this article it is important to me and my wife that we do not take a vacation from our faith as well as our jobs:
On this and other trips, my family realized the truly universal nature of the Church, which is everywhere, even in the middle of an Arizona desert. Regardless of the place or language, the readings and the prayers were the same as they were in our suburban parish, so we were all praying the Mass together. You get to give God thanks and praise, which is right and just, for being able to go on vacation. And you get to do so in some beautiful locations.
Thursday was a drive to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. I was going to tell you of the monument, our mile-plus hike around its base, and our observing up to two dozen daredevils climbing the sides of the edifice to its tabled peak. We drove back to the northern Hills, through Spearfish and Deadwood and Lead, and in the early evening took one of the most beautiful and scenic drives that exists in the United States through Spearfish Canyon. I’m not a good enough writer to describe what I saw, and I don’t have the photos available as yet. Waterfalls, cliffs, winding roads, sunset at the site where the final scene from Dances With Wolves was filmed, and the creek that carved it all still flowing with water so clear and clean you can see right through; each passing moment making me inquire in my own mind as to whether or not I could somehow convince the family to relocate to the region.
All of which brings me to the deer strolling before me Friday morning.
I was going to mention that I was driving away from Rapid City on August 16, 2013, just as I was as a passenger in my parent’s wagon on August 16, 1977. On that clear morning thirty-six years ago we had been driving for a full hour, listening to endless Elvis Presley songs on the radio, before a DJ broke in to deliver the reason for the marathon: Elvis had died. My dad drove on in silence while my mom silently wept.
I was going to tell you everything. I may still use photos taken with my camera and my phone. But today I’m back in the world after a Monday back in the office. Instead I’ll share a bit more tomorrow about the drive home and a few poignant realizations that came to mind during a ten hour drive along I-80 across Nebraska.
“See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, the sun, how they move in silence.” –Mother Teresa
(to be continued)